Perhaps Knoxville’s most durable attraction is Market Square. Established as a farmer’s market in 1854 by developers Joseph Mabry and William Swan, it has served that purpose ever since–but from its early days it was much more, a cultural center, the very heart of the city and even the greater region. Farm produce has always been its defining principle, and today on Saturday and Wednesday market days during the growing season (May to November), it draws thousands. But it has also seen riots, concerts, demonstrations, celebrations, and nearly every sort of business. It has attracted musicians and novelist and national politicians.
It was well-known by the time of the Civil War, when its small city-owned market house was loaded with Union ammunition, causing anxiety in town and a formal complaint from the Unionist mayor. By 1870 it was flanked by two rows of brick buildings, giving it the general look we know today. The city built a tall, slim, elaborate Market Hall in the center of the square in 1897; it was torn down in 1960, replaced with a modernist design for a “mall”–later replaced, itself, beginning in the 1980s, with approaches that respected the surviving Victorian designs.
Most of Market Square’s buildings date from about 1865 to 1910. Of special interest is the Peter Kern Building at the southwest corner. One of the earliest works of influential local architect Joseph Baumann, it was built in 1876 for German-immigrant baker and later mayor Peter Kern. Not only a bakery and candy factory, it was an emporium of delights, featuring a soda, fountain, toy store, “ice-cream saloon,” and ballroom. It’s now occupied by the Oliver Hotel, two ground-floor restaurants, and a “speakeasy” known as Peter Kern’s Library (his portrait is behind the bar).
The large bronze bell on the south end of the square once hung in the tower of the City Hall, at the other end of the Market House, and sounded alarms, in the pre-radio era, about local crises, like riots or fires. Removed as a safety hazard long before its building was torn down, it traveled around the region, serving various purposes outside of downtown (during World War II it signaled blackout drills in East Knoxville) before its return to Market Square as a permanent symbol in the 1980s.
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